After a decade of decline, vocational technical education - or ''vo-tech'' - is making a comeback that could put smiles on a lot of employers' faces in this tight job market.

In California, the number of annual vo-tech students, including those in high school, has grown from 1.3 million to 2 million since 1990, most of it during the past two years, officials say. Enrollments are also rising in New York, Missouri, Ohio, New Jersey, North Carolina and other states.''Low-level'' job training once associated with some vo-techs has been upgraded dramatically, said Bret Lovejoy, executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) in Alexandria, Va.

It was because of this stigma that ACTE recently changed its name from American Vocational Association. People mistakenly saw vo-tech as ''something for other people's children,'' a grab bag of menial jobs leading to dead ends that, Mr. Lovejoy said, ''is certainly not the case.''

Vo-techs took a hit in 1983 when the National Commission on Excellence in Education released its ''A Nation At Risk'' report, said Neils Brooks, Virginia's director of vocational and adult education services in Richmond.

The study urged school systems to upgrade academic content, ''which took away from vocational education,'' he said. ''It was an extremely difficult time for vocational educators.''

Mr. Lovejoy attributed the current turnaround to an acute shortage of skilled workers forcing businesses to pay them higher wages.

''Often, a student with correct skills can get a job paying $30,000 to $40,000 right out of high school,'' Mr. Lovejoy said, whereas ''there's been a trend of college graduates going to community and technical colleges to get a skill because their four-year degree did not prepare them to get a job and pursue a career.''

About 65 percent of top jobs, the ACTE states, require ''more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree.''

Some of the better-paying jobs in this group include construction and building inspectors, power-plant operators, metal workers, graphic artists, nurses and technicians in the auto, airline and medical fields.

(A report, ''High-Skill, High-Wage Jobs'' is available from ACTE, 1410 King St., Alexandria, Va., 703-683-9335, e-mail: pplawain(AT)

Not everyone thinks vo-tech's growth is good news. Critic David Marsh, a University of Southern California educator, termed it ''a serious problem,'' saying it is ''a very confused initiative.''

''It doesn't have the kids enter (the work force) with a strong academic background'' they need to succeed, Mr. Marsh said.

He thinks high schools should drop vo-tech entirely and ''concentrate on general academic strengths.'' His book, ''The New American High School'' (Corwin Press) concludes ''that high schools can't do everything.''

Dean Curtis, chairman of Curtis & Associates, Kearney, Neb., a firm that sets up work-bound plans for welfare recipients, said that partnering by employers with high school educators ''is really controversial'' because school-to-work initiatives encourage some students to drop out.

But, he said, adopting Mr. Marsh's approach raises the question: Why train all high school students academically ''when 50 percent of them aren't going on to college?''

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